Tuan N. Pham, The National Interest Online
Beijing is revealing its new maritime strategy. America must be ready to stop it.
uncaptioned image from article
Ahead of the looming International Tribunal ruling on the Philippine-initiated arbitration case against China’s contested maritime sovereignty claims in the South China Sea (SCS), Chinese diplomats and government officials are conducting an aggressive PR campaign throughout the region and across the globe to influence world opinion and present China and its legal and political positions as correct, through the publication of various comments by sympathetic world leaders, legal scholars and international relations experts. They want to highlight the positive aspects of Beijing’s maritime security comportment and accentuate the benevolent features of its growing presence in the SCS, while peddling the same familiar public-diplomacy themes—the United States as the destabilizing aggressor; China as the virtuous but hapless victim; and the source of all regional trouble as Washington’s arm-twisting of its allies and partners in Manila, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur—and steadily messaging that it does not recognize the jurisdiction and authority of the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague to rule in this case. All in all, this PR shift may be part of a larger adjustment by Beijing of its assertive actions in the SCS in response to the mounting unfavorable geopolitical conditions and regional trends. If so, what does the PR shift reveal about Beijing’s maritime strategy, and more importantly, what can Washington do to shape and influence that evolving strategy?
Why the PR Shift?
There are three possible motives why China may have taken a more forceful PR posture. First and foremost, anticipating an unfavorable PCA merits ruling, Beijing wants to occupy the moral high ground in support of its public-diplomacy stance, while portraying Washington as the destabilizing aggressor to uphold its maritime sovereignty claims, preserve its strategic positions and mitigate impact to its national interests.
Second, China has certainly taken notice that its unilateralism the past few years has alarmed its neighbors (and fellow SCS claimants) and driven them in varying degrees toward the United States, undermining its ultimate goal of regional preeminence (and possibly global primacy). Hence, President Xi Jinping is now touting a new kinder, gentler and more tolerant foreign policy toward China’s neighboring countries. He apparently wants cooperative international relations, a network of global partners, and a regional security outlook characterized by “consultation, common construction, sharing, and a security governance model with Asian features” to counter the United States’ rebalance to the region.
Third, Beijing may have made the rational calculation that it has already achieved significant gains and that for now, it needs to simply exercise strategic patience to consolidate those gains. China’s land reclamation and militarization of its various geographic features have given it the capability and capacity to monitor and control much of the SCS. Thus, while China occupies a position of regional advantage and strength, it must take care not to risk its advances through needless acts of aggression. Otherwise, it invites the erosion of its strategic positions and further delays in its strategic timetables. All Beijing really needs to do is to sustain discrete and steady assertiveness through words, in order to safeguard its strategic interests without indulging in overreaching actions that could encourage stronger responses by Washington and its allies and partners in the region and/or collective actions by the other SCS claimants. ...
What Can the United States Do to Counter China’s Strategy?
Challenge New Chinese Domestic Maritime Laws and Chinese Narratives.Raise questions now on Beijing’s intent to draft new domestic maritime laws to support its concepts of blue territory and blue economic space. Chinese laws are political by nature, and the transitory window of opportunity for shaping them closes after publication. No pushback means tacit acceptance. Additionally, do not let Beijing characterize and define U.S. actions unchallenged. Address China’s public diplomacy point-for-point, and reiterate U.S. positions to unambiguously convey the United States’ national interests and shape the space for a diplomatic process to emerge following the tribunal’s decision: (1) the United States is not a party to the ongoing arbitration case between the Philippines and China, and does not take a position on the merits of the case; (2) the United States supports the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes and the need for all countries to comply with their obligations under international law; (3) the United States takes no position on the competing maritime sovereignty claims to naturally formed geographic features in the SCS; (4) the United States takes a strong position on protecting the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries, including that maritime sovereignty claims must comply with international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
At the end of the day, there is a fleeting strategic opportunity for Washington to shape and influence Beijing’s developing maritime strategy and nudge China toward being a more responsible global stakeholder and net provider of maritime security that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, silence and inaction imply acknowledgment and consent to Beijing to execute its maritime strategy on its own terms, unchallenged. Better to reframe the strategic landscape now than to accept a fait accompli later. The high stakes are continued U.S. preeminence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
Captain Tuan N. Pham is a career naval officer with extensive operational experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.